Prologue — A New Story
The crowd—including an utterly packed gallery, dozens of cameras, microphones everywhere, soldiers lining the walls, and so much more—drew a collective breath as they got to their feet. Felix grinned. He’d never seen so many people at a bail hearing. Guess I’m really newsworthy now.
Judge Hawlstead clambered onto his seat. He was an old man, pushing his seventies, and physically he let it show. When the man started speaking, though, Felix would’ve believed he was a spry young twenty year old. Hawlstead straightened his half-moon spectacles and peered down at the documents on his desk.
”You may be seated,” said Hawlstead. The crowd, except for the media lining the upper gallery, slowly settled back in. “Defendant, please rise?”
Felix got to his feet, with his lawyer right at his side. He twitched involuntarily—Felix had never been able to control his twitches, no matter how much he tried. It didn’t help much in the court, when he was trying to prove he wasn’t a flight risk and could go home.
Please, God, let me go home. I’ve been stuck in disgusting cages for four weeks now…
Even before that, he’d spent too many days hiding out with Brian Hendricks. After so long away, Felix really wanted the comfort of his own bed, his warm fire, his blankets, his home.
I could really use a drink, too.
”Felix Wieczorek. After reviewing the evidence, I have decided to impose the following restrictions on you pending full trial. First, you adhere to the agreement that your communications be monitored and your internet access restricted.”
Gasps through the crowd. Felix resisted the urge to turn and gloat over his shoulder, where he knew a contingent of grey-cloaked individuals stood up in the gallery directly behind him. If he’s opening with a lifestyle restriction, that means I’m going home. Everybody’s starting to get it. He shivered—Felix was fairly certain someone was making him colder with magic, since nobody else seemed to be freezing.
”Second, you may not leave the state under any circumstances. Third…”
The restrictions kept coming, but Felix didn’t care. He could live without all of that. All the arrangements were already in place. All he needed was to go home and relax. The rest would handle itself. He and Brian had seen to that.
”Bailiff, please release the defendant.”
The officer of the court walked over and uncuffed him. Felix rubbed at his wrists, smiling. Only then did he turn to face the crowd—and as expected, he saw Cinza, sans her underage kidnapped lover Hannah Newman, staring daggers at him from the gallery directly above.
Felix winked. Instantly, the air around him dropped by another five or ten degrees. He grinned even wider.
Fuck you, witch. You’re not gonna provoke me. I can play this game all day.
A police escort was already waiting to take him from the huge room. Jeremy Ashe, no longer with the FBI, glared from one direction, while Governor Milton stood with her sister Maddie on the opposite side. So many faces, so many angry expressions—he drank them in with the same smile.
We won. We broke them. Nobody’s awakening anymore, and people who have magic are too scared to practice openly. It’s only a matter of time now.
He could take their abuse, could endure the courts and the bad press. If anything, Felix might even twist the press back around to his side. He was more than capable of spinning the story into something favorable. It’d be a very hard sell to get the public on Brian’s side, but once Felix was free, he could pull something off.
Felix Wieczorek was a Pulitzer winner. He’d spent time in warzones, he’d won dozens of awards and met with fascinating people the world over. More than once, he’d changed the world’s opinion on someone and pushed everyone in a better direction—who was to say he couldn’t do it again?
It’d have to be a new story. Brian Hendricks’ tale was too complicated now. With his daughter as the poster-child for abused and neglected children, not to mention the most powerful visible awakened in the world, the man from Rallsburg wasn’t the right face for them anymore. Felix would still fight for the man, but… it was time for a change.
The right person would come. Brian would understand. All he needed to do was be patient, and be ready.
Felix strode out of the courtroom doors after processing with his head high, facing the harsh winter sun, daring anyone to take a shot at him. He was on top of the world. As the officers cleared the way down to a waiting car, he took in the crowd, taking measure of the voices on each side—and to his satisfaction, there was still a vocal contingent of support.
The car door swung open. By the time Felix reached the end of the staircase, his heart was pounding. His hands trembled. Sure, he doubted anyone would actually take a shot at him, but being in the center of a crowd cursing his name wasn’t exactly pleasant. On top of that, seeing families of those who died in the attack…
It’s not their fault. Their children, their siblings, their parents decided to awaken. Nobody can be forced into magic, just like Cinza always says. Thank God.
Felix felt for them. They’d lost loved ones. He could sympathize, even though he’d never really had loved ones of his own. Certainly not his own family.
The car pulled away from the courthouse, and soon after, he was on the way back to his little place in Seattle. He was getting a police escort all the way home in an unmarked car, since he didn’t own one himself. Felix leaned back and watched the streetlights go by above him… and soon enough, he found himself dozing off.
It’d been a very long day.
To his disappointment, he never did quite drift off. Memories kept stubbornly pushing back against his fatigue—of gunfights, of monsters in the forest, of deadly magic cast all around him. Brian’s struggle, his triumph in that turret of the old library… and the sheer horror on the man’s face as his daughter walked into the room.
Of all people, the legendary girl, the one whom Cinza called the strongest outside the Gods—of course she would be his missing daughter.
Felix sighed aloud, which prompted a word from the driver. He gave a noncommittal grunt, and the driver returned to the road. They were almost home, cruising along the highway back to the city, back to civilization.
If nothing else, it’ll be nice to finally be back in the real world. God I hated living out there. Not as bad as some of the shit I’ve endured for a story, but still…
The car rolled up to his little condo. Felix wasn’t well-off—proper journalism didn’t really pay well, even to the award winners—but he made enough for a comfortable, quiet living. He didn’t even have to share a wall with anyone, and it had an amazing rear view of a park, which he liked to stare out over while working on his stories.
”Thanks,” he murmured, opening the door.
”You need anything?”
Felix was a little taken aback. Most cops or police-affiliated people didn’t like him very much. Between being a journalist and being affiliated with a major fugitive, plus all the stories he’d written about police malfeasance, corruption, or just simple incompetence over the years… well, Felix wasn’t exactly surprised when he didn’t get equal treatment.
”Not right now, thank you.”
The cop nodded. He leaned back and handed Felix his card, which also had a handwritten phone number on the back.
”Twenty-four hours, man. You call, I’m there.”
Felix nodded. Must have been part of Brian’s network. I never did meet everyone, partly by design. “I’ll be in touch.”
The car rumbled away into the city. Felix took a deep breath, eyes closed, taking in the sounds of the city. He’d missed proper civilization, and just the sheer emotion of being free. There wasn’t anything like being trapped in a cell for a month and finally emerging into the open air. Felix might have danced all the way up to his doorstep—if he wasn’t so exhausted.
Instead, he trudged up the walk, nearly slipped on the icy steps, and fumbled his keys into the lock. The door clicked open, he went inside, and it shut behind him.
Already, Felix felt like collapsing. Problem was, he knew it wasn’t going to be any better than in the car, and now he knew why. The memories weren’t just trauma from the last couple weeks—they were a story waiting to be told. He needed to write everything down, while it was still fresh in his memory.
I was firsthand to some of the most important events in modern history. People will need my perspective, as unbiased and detailed as I can provide.
He went straight to his refrigerator and pulled out his favorite wine. Next, with a box of crackers, some Boursin cheese, and laptop under his arm, Felix beelined for his desk. The snack tasted like manna from heaven, the wine pure delight on his tongue.
Felix sighed again. I needed this.
The laptop needed charging, of course. He plugged it in and turned on the TV while he waited, flipping between news channels until he found a reporter he could actually stand and a story that seemed worth watching instead of reading.
”And how were these images taken?”
”Analog cameras still work in the zone.”
Felix snorted aloud. Some reporters…
”One of the Greycloaks provided us with illumination for a better picture. We tried to take video as well, but it didn’t develop very cleanly.”
”It looks like the pilgrim camp has entirely recovered from the attacks at the end of November.”
”Yes. As you can see here, the National Guard has left elements in place—these humvees were stripped of parts and abandoned simply because they were too inconvenient to move, and they now make a sheltered home for a couple families.”
”And they’re self-sustaining, you said?”
”The Greywood supplies them with fresh-grown fruits and vegetables every day, enough to feed the whole community. At first, they were still relying on supplies from the Guard, but the Greycloaks have taken over all those duties since—and they’ve got a few new members as well.”
”You sound very impressed with them.”
”Well, it’s really admirable what they’ve managed to achieve in the face of such a horrible attack on their lives.”
”We were trying to save the world,” muttered Felix as he started to type. “Still are.”
”And did you get any photographs of Rallsburg?”
”Well, apparently it’s not called that anymore.”
”That’s all we know right now. If you try to get close, you’ll be sent away. She’s protecting it really well.”
”She being the famed Natalie Hendricks, right?”
”Right. I’m sure you’ve all seen the satellite photos from when Google updated their maps, and then the leaked military versions last week… but from what I saw up close, they barely show anything.”
Felix paused. He’d heard about the so-called reconstruction of Rallsburg while in his cell, but without any internet or television access, he’d never gotten a view. If there were leaked military photographs… He started digging through his usual sources.
Sure enough, a set of photos taken a week ago. Based on the notations, he assumed they were updating daily, and had tasked a dedicated geosynchronous satellite over the region to keep an eye on her. Once they had the height of the zone mapped, they’d start using drones with cameras for more angled, up-close views. He’d be able to keep an eye on Brian’s daughter along with the rest of the world, thanks to his own contacts in military intelligence.
She was definitely building something. Huge structures were emerging, some three times as tall as the former tallest structures in Rallsburg—except for the cell tower and the old library. The cell tower was long-destroyed, and its metal reclaimed by Natalie for whatever project she was working on, but the library still stood. It didn’t look like she’d changed a single stone. The same parts were still broken.
What are you doing, girl?
Felix was torn in two. If there was a way to reverse the awakening process, then Brian might have a chance to get his daughter back… but every single person they’d killed would be someone they could have saved. If there wasn’t, then father would be forced to kill daughter, sooner or later.
Both options would utterly and permanently destroy Brian’s soul.
Felix shook his head in dismay. There wasn’t any way out for the poor man. He changed the channel, looking for news away from Natalie and the horrible events which ended Brian’s crusade for the time being. He landed on a panel of talking heads discussing proceedings in Washington D.C., a comfortable remove from the Washington he called home.
”—Rika Nishimura was denied bail herself last week, citing Hailey Winscombe as precedent, plus her history of illegal entry and exit into the country. Are you guys on board with the double-standards here? I mean, Felix Wieczorek directly participated in the massacre of the awakened camp and helped form a recognized terrorist organization. Yet now because we’ve got one scientific paper on the awakened and it’s being held up as gospel, Nishimura’s now liable to be insane?”
”I mean, there’s considerable evidence now for people’s lives taking significant changes in direction after being awakened. The idea that prior evidence isn’t admissible isn’t crazy.”
”Of course they take significant changes! They just learned how to use magic! Are you saying you’d be totally the same after awakening yourself?”
”Maybe not, but—”
”The guy who published that paper was seriously biased. He works for Cornelius Malton, who’s being accused of attacking multiple awakened himself and might be partly responsible for the disappearance of Grey-eyes. He tried to capture her, you know.”
”Alleged by his personal bodyguard and childhood best friend. What more do you want?”
”A bodyguard who’s being tried in the U.K. for multiple homicides, abductions, and more.”
This was something Felix could definitely get behind. Malton, Viper, Kleiner, Rika, Cinza… all of them were awakened, and they were fighting amongst themselves. He was more than happy for them to try and murder each other, legally or literally.
”One of the key witnesses is an internationally-wanted fugitive herself, you know.”
”Oh, like Hailey Winscombe is really a criminal.”
”She certainly is on paper. Every police department and sheriff’s office in the country has her on a wanted poster.”
”It’s for show. They love her. She’s out saving lives and being a hero. They just can’t officially support that sort of thing. You really think they couldn’t get her to come in if they wanted to?”
”She broke out once…”
”Yeah, because of everything happening in Washington State. You know, they say she probably knows Grey-eyes personally. Like, they’re friends.”
”So she’s one of the so-called Three Gods?”
Felix grunted. They were no gods. They were devils and monsters, one and all. He finished off the last cracker and took another sip of wine, before turning back to his notes once again.
”Well, there’s only two now. One of ’em died in Rallsburg. That’s why it got blown up.”
”No, there’s three again. There’s also the one nobody knows. Alpha.”
”Huh. So that’s the three Cinza’s always talking about. Makes sense.”
Felix rolled his eyes. These talking heads didn’t know anything. He hated the awakened, but he at least had his facts straight. Hailey wasn’t one of the “three Gods”—nobody had even known she was awakened at the time, based on Brian’s story and corroborated by Cinza’s diaries. She was one of the “true awakened”—or “natural awakened”, as even Cinza was occasionally inconsistent with terminology—which gave her similar power, but not nearly as much breadth of spellcasting.
Know your enemy, right Mr. Tzu?
Two Gods—Alpha and Grey-eyes. Five “true awakened”—Natalie Hendricks, Hector Peraza, Kendra or Lily Laushire, Hailey Winscombe, and the deceased Jessica Silverdale. Estimates of anywhere from several hundred to several thousand awakened, based on guesswork and magic scan sampling done by their men in the days leading up to the attack in the Olympic Forest.
And no more.
Felix stopped typing and leaned back. He took another sip of wine, savoring every sweet drop as it swished down his throat. They could do it, eventually. The first major, terrifying battle was over. Awakenings had stopped, their goddess had abandoned them.
It’d just take a new story.
A faint hissing sound. His eyes went wide.
Fog was beginning to fill the room from every direction. Felix took a deep breath and held it. He locked his account and snapped the laptop shut. Pure white fog drifted in, blanketing his home, blocking out all light, all detail—everything. Before it became opaque, Felix scrambled across the room for a kitchen knife. He grabbed it at the last second, just before he lost sight completely.
He backed into a corner, knife held aloft.
”Stay back!” he warned, and took a few random swipes for emphasis. “I can still hear you!”
Of course he couldn’t. He couldn’t hear anything apart from the faint hissing sound which hadn’t relented since the first moment fog started to seep in. Something brushed at his side, and he slashed, but it was just the pantry door. It slammed back into place and clicked shut.
Felix took another swipe with the knife, just in case.
It went on like that for many minutes. He’d imagine something moving near him and slash at empty air, over and over. Felix had no idea how long it went on, only that he was completely untouched throughout—and totally blind. Only when the hissing sound faded did he finally begin to let his guard down.
The fog began to ebb away, little by little. Felix blinked repeatedly, as if trying to clear something out of his eyes, though he actually felt quite untouched by the magic—and it was magic. He knew that kind of fog, he’d seen it before.
Twenty minutes had gone by. As he blinked, Felix started to notice the differences. His room was still there, but… things had moved around. More things were missing, including the laptop he’d just been working on.
At least I locked my computer. Still… if they manage to break in…
He should have known they’d retaliate. Felix just hadn’t expected it to be so fast. His bail hearing could have stretched into the next week. He began to take inventory. The cash was all gone—and now he paid for not trusting banks. He’d lost a lot of money from his safe, which was wide open. His other valuables were all gone too, and his backup laptop.
They knew exactly what to go for, and how to get in…
As Felix trudged into his bedroom, he found the final piece of work, and once again he was torn in two. On the one hand, he admired the symbolism, the sheer audacity, and the dedication to presentation it must have taken. They’d selected him, and they’d personalized it.
On the other hand, they’d gone after what he was most proud of, and it cut deep.
Atop his bedside table normally sat every award for journalism he’d ever received. Now, they’d been scattered across the room. His Pulitzer was crushed into a hundred pieces, while other statues were melted and burned or simply sliced apart. His papers were shredded. The entire record of his life’s work was torn apart and left to dust in his bedroom—with only a single intact piece of paper on his bed, folded into a neat triangle, with two words emblazoned in huge silver letters.